Even as industrial civilization reaches into the farthest corners of the globe to extract resources such as oil, timber and fish, environmentalists are striving to mitigate its deleterious effects on the biosphere. Projects to reduce pollution, prevent climate change and protect biodiversity, however, are drawing criticism that they could drive indigenous people off their lands and destroy their livelihoods.

Conservationists have historically been at odds with the people who inhabit wildernesses. During the last half of the 20th century, millions of indigenous people in Africa, South America and Asia were ousted from their homelands to establish nature sanctuaries free of humans. Most succumbed to malnutrition, disease and exploitation, recounts anthropologist Michael Cernea of George Washington University. Such outcomes—coupled with the realization that indigenous groups usually help to stabilize ecosystems by, for instance, keeping fire or invasive weeds at bay—have convinced major conservation groups to take local human concerns into account. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) now describes indigenous peoples as “natural allies,” and the Nature Conservancy pledges to seek their “free, informed and prior” consent to projects impacting their territories.

Recent incidents, however, have made some observers wonder. “They’re talking the talk, but are they walking the walk?” asks Jim Wickens of the advocacy group Forest Peoples Program, based in Moreton-in-Marsh, England. Wickens cites a “huge cry of concern” by 71 grassroots groups protesting a WWF effort to set up a certification scheme for shrimp aquaculture. Shrimp farms have often been established along tropical coastlines by cutting down mangroves, and their effluents have damaged neighboring fisheries and farmlands. The Mangrove Action Project, an advocacy group based in Port Angeles, Wash., considers intensive shrimp aquaculture impossible to make sustainable.

The WWF counters that less than one third of shrimp manufacturers worldwide are currently achieving the standards that it hopes to set. As such, certification should “certainly make shrimp farming cleaner,” says Jason Clay, WWF’s vice president of markets. Geographer Peter Vandergeest of York University in Toronto worries, however, that the endeavor will falter unless the communities that are affected by shrimp farms have a say in setting standards and enforcement. Given the remoteness of many shrimp farms, he explains, auditors’ checks will be rare, and “you can easily put on a show.”

Perhaps more worrisome to advocates for indigenous peoples, however, are so-called carbon-offset schemes that seek to protect standing forests. Several of the large environmental or­gani­zations hold that the carbon saved by preventing defores­tation could be sold as offsets, thereby generating funds for conservation and communities. A scheme re­ferred to as REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation) may be introduced this December into the United Nations Climate Change Convention, and it could be partly financed by offsets. The Nature Conservancy hopes that three billion tons of such credits, valued at $45 billion, can be generated by 2020.

But Marcus Colchester of Forest Peoples Program comments: “We see a risk that the prospect of getting a lot of money for biodiversity could lead to indigenous peoples’ concerns falling by the wayside.” In particular, increasing the financial value of forests could lead to “the biggest land grab of all time,” claims Tom B. K. Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, based in Bemidji, Minn. Interpol has warned that unscrupulous entities plan to profit from REDD: their methods could include expelling an indigenous people from their forest to acquire legal title over it. The Nature Conservancy, which supports indigenous peoples’ efforts to acquire legal rights to their territories, counters that “increasing the value of forests through REDD can only provide them benefits.”

Concerns of displacement are particularly acute in Indonesia, where villagers opposing logging operations and paper, pulp and palm oil plantations on their territories have experienced violent attacks. Some 20 carbon forestry projects are already in the works there. Colchester warns that the government’s regulations on REDD do not adequately protect in­digenous peoples. In the Kampar Penin­sula, for instance, a forestry company proposes to clear-cut a ring of swamp forest and plant it with acacia—so as to protect the forest in the core area and thereby earn REDD credits. The project would limit the access of the Melayu people to their traditional fishing creeks and hunting grounds; they have protested by preventing company staff from entering the area.

Similar fears of dispossession color attempts to protect coral reefs. In May six nations in Southeast Asia, with technical support from the Nature Conservancy, WWF and Conservation International, committed to the Coral Triangle Initiative, which will protect 75,000 square kilometers of coastline, coral reefs and ocean. M. Riza Damanik of KIARA, the Fisheries Justice Coalition of Indonesia, worries that the richest fishing grounds will be zoned off as protected areas.

Environmental psychologist Lea Scherl of James Cook University in Australia, who has studied the region’s marine protected areas, believes that such concerns are justified. In the largest conservation organizations, she explains, scientists design projects on the macro level—as if the map contained only natural features—and factor in culture afterward. “The people rarely have a meaningful voice at the very outset,” she says. Furthermore, efforts to mitigate a project’s impacts on local communities are underfunded and often unsystematic, compared with the scientific aspects.

In the end, it is those who have intimate details of the land and the seas, accumulated over generations, who hold key insights to conservation. As Scherl puts it: “You lose that knowledge when you take the people away.”